THE true beauty of the world’s most beautiful game, according to Johan Cruyff, who knew, didn’t lie in tricksy technique. If a man could juggle a ball a thousand times, it proved only that he ought to join the circus. Of course, it was great when Rudolf Nureyev said he should have been a dancer. But he was not just using his long, lean body when he played football. He was mostly using his brain. That brain, as well as his famously agile feet, made him a local hero in Holland and Spain and, by extension, all over football-mad Europe.
His rules of the game were simple. (Geometrical, some said, even mystical.) If he had the ball, the space on the pitch had to be made as large as possible. If he didn’t have it, the space had to become threatening and small. He adjusted his perspective continually with the movement of the ball. At one given moment—neither too early nor too late, en un momento dado, his catchphrase when he shaped Barcelona into the world’s top team—the ball and he would meet. And from this, as often as not, came glory. Toon Hermans, his fellow-countryman, eloquently described his almost spiritual enthronement in Dutch hearts:
And Vincent saw the corn
And Einstein the number
And Zeppelin the Zeppelin
And Johan saw the ball.
He didn’t just see it. One piece of wizardry, the Cruyff turn, involved a dummy pass and a back-flick, completely wrong-footing the defender. He invented that in 1974, the neatest of legacies. In another trick, a pretend penalty of 1982, he rolled the ball sideways from the spot to allow an unnoticed team-mate to charge in and score. In 1977 he achieved a phantom goal, leaping up and twisting round, back to the net, so the keeper barely saw it coming. He back-heeled the ball then, but could also score with the laces, inside or outside of either foot. That made him six times as talented, he reckoned, as most modern players.
In 1966-67, his best season for Ajax, he scored 33 goals. In 1974 he almost won the World Cup for Holland. He usually played forward, but his philosophy of “total football”—in which he had been coached himself by Rinus Michels at Ajax, before he became its most celebrated “conductor”, as of an orchestra—allowed any player to take any position on the field. Left-wingers could be right-wingers, and a goalie could even be an attacker, using his feet for a change. (Why not? It was a waste of a position otherwise.) Switching and swapping was a neat way to confound the opposition, whether the whirling “carousel” was wearing Ajax white-and-red or bright Holland orange. He had found yet another way to shake up European football.
Match analysts almost made him into a scholar of the turf, “a Pythagoras in boots”, as he was called once. For him, it was all just instinct. He was a cocky, all-knowing Mokummer, master of the one-liner delivered in best Amsterdam slang: a poor boy from Betondorp, “Concrete Village”, who got into the Ajax junior academy mostly because his mother cleaned at the club and his stepfather was a groundsman. At ten, he was putting out the corner-flags and begging players to take pot-shots at him; at 17 his first team-photos showed him open-mouthed and wide-eyed, hungrier for the ball than anyone else. At that point, the mid-1960s, the Dutch football league was becoming increasingly professional. By the mid-1970s, with him playing, Ajax had won six Eredivisie titles and three consecutive European Cups.
For all his talk about teamwork, he didn’t naturally fit in. He was a loner who smoked too much, preferred family to team-mates and wore the number 14 on his shirt. When the Dutch national team was sponsored by Adidas he wouldn’t wear their boots, and went with Puma instead. At the start of the season in 1973 he suddenly left, following Michels, to play for Barcelona for a spell. He returned to Ajax only to leave again in 1983, convinced that they undervalued him. He was never guilty of that himself. Clubs that took him on later as a director or adviser were berated when things were not done as they had to be, his way. “Before I make a mistake, I don’t make that mistake,” he said.
His most lasting triumph, though, was the coaching of Barcelona. El Flaco, as they called him, “Skinny”, took the team to the top of La Liga and then, in 1992, to victory in the European Cup. Even more than at Ajax, Barça absorbed his edicts, setting up at his instigation a junior academy, La Masia, like the one he had gone to at Ajax. There a new generation of players—Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and the rest—learned to play in the swift, precise and total Cruyff style. Though he was no more gregarious, and as anti-majoritarian as ever, his separatist head warmed to the Catalans, and they to him. With him they felt they couldn’t lose, and in his eight years at the Camp Nou they rarely did.
His most acclaimed successor as coach, Pep Guardiola, talked of him as the architect of a cathedral he could only reverently restore. Others compared his strategic nous to the paintings of Vermeer. It was all a bit highfalutin. But when he was on the ball, in that sweet moment when he was not too early and not too late, when opponents tumbled in astonishment and space sprang open where none had been before, then, yes, he was quite a lot like God.